Alabama was dying a slow death in the College Football Playoff National Championship. Then its youngest players reversed the Tide.
For eternity, the name most associated with Bama’s 26-23 overtime win against Georgia on Monday will be Tua Tagovailoa. He is, as you’ve probably learned by now, a true freshman — a five-star true freshman who plays under pressure like he’s been doing this at this level for a decade, but a true freshman nonetheless.
Alabama would be scary enough going forward if all you knew about the Crimson Tide was that they’d just won their fifth national title in nine years. They’d be even scarier if you considered that Tagovailoa is still basically a child or that the quarterback he replaced at halftime, Jalen Hurts, has now appeared in as many national title games as he’s spent years as a college student (two). But it goes deeper than that.
Many true freshmen were the catalysts for Bama’s win. Not just at QB.
Alabama trailed 13-0 at halftime. The Tide’s answer was to go young.
They were able to casually dip into their depth chart and pull out the No. 2 overall recruit in the class of 2017, running back Najee Harris. He spent most of the year behind Bo Scarbrough and Damien Harris, but he led the Tide with 64 yards on six carries Monday.
Nobody except Tagovailoa, who had 10 carries not counting sacks, ran the ball more often for the Tide than Harris. For both players, every single one of their carries came after halftime, when Bama decided to let the kids lead the revival.
Rookie offensive lineman Alex Leatherwood didn’t start the game, but down the stretch, he replaced Jonah Williams at left tackle. He helped Alabama get the push up front that sprang Harris and gave Tagovailoa the space to make a couple of key plays. A thorough film review would confirm Leatherwood wasn’t perfect. He looked lost on the first offensive snap of overtime when he was beaten during a Georgia sack on Tagovailoa for a 16-yard loss.
That play turned out not to matter. On the next play, another blue-chip true freshman toasted a cornerback in man coverage and caught the 41-yard touchdown that won the game. DeVonta Smith was one of the best wideouts in the class of 2018: a route-running marvel with the hands to finish plays. He sure finished this one.
Smith ended the game, but he wasn’t the only freshman receiver to help. Jerry Jeudy had a 20-yard catch that set up Alabama’s game-tying touchdown with less than four minutes to play in regulation. Henry Ruggs III — merely a high four-star in 2017 — caught the touchdown that gave Bama its first points.
All told, the class of 2017 accounted for 257 of Alabama’s 371 offensive yards, not double-counting Tagovailoa’s throws to his classmates. The Tide didn’t rely on freshmen nearly as much on defense because they didn’t need to, but they’ve got an obnoxiously good pipeline on that side of the ball, too.
Such is the benefit of being the dominant recruiter in college football for most of this century.
Bama’s seven-year streak of signing the country’s No. 1 class ended this winter when Georgia took that throne for itself. The UGA 2018 class currently ranks as the sixth-best of all-time, and the Dawgs may be on their way to becoming a Bama-like power.
But Bama’s 2017 class ranked as the second-best of all-time, and the Tide stacked that on top of a bunch of other No. 1 classes. The Tide aren’t just blessed with talented players who will secure their future as an elite team. They’re blessed with talented players who are good enough to win titles right now. They’re going to get better, too.
Player development matters. Character matters. Good bounces matter. But there’s no surer way to put yourself in contention every year than signing the most obviously talented athletes out there. Bama has done that for long enough that we shouldn’t be surprised a few of those players showed out in the biggest moment of the year.